The Last Time a Pope Died (II)

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

Where’s the Pope?

The question of pope John Paul II’s present location is, to say the least, a controversial one, not so much between Protestants and Roman Catholics as among Protestants. Has his soul been “made perfect in holiness and immediately pass(ed) into glory” while his body “being still united to Christ – rests in (its) (grave) till the resurrection”? (WSC 37). Or, has his soul been “cast into hell, where (he) remain(s) in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day”? (WCF 32.1) We are shut up to these two possibilities because “Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none” (WCF 32.1).

Even to entertain the possibility that the pope is not in heaven can get you fired. Pittsburgh Christian talk radio host (WORD- 101.5FM) Marty Mintor found that out on Friday, April 8, when he was called into general manager Chuck Gratner’s office after his 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. show and told he was being let go. His offense? Innocuous enough. In response to a caller’s question about whether the pope was in heaven, he said that many evangelical Christians believe that one must be a “born-again believer” to go to heaven, but added that “the question of whether a person is born again is something personal, something between an individual and the Creator.” He also “made it clear that the discussion was not an attack on the character of the pope but, rather, a look at the teachings — not only of John Paul, but the Catholic Church in general.” No Knox or Calvin (or Ian Paisley or Bob Jones) he. But he had to go because he was “alienating the listeners.” Gratner said, “We ended our relationship” with Mintor because of differences in how he conducted his show. WORD-FM needs to function in this city in support of the entire church — that means everybody — and not focus on “denominational issues.”

One must resist the temptation to engage Mr. Mintor and Mr. Gratner’s soteriology and ecclesiology, which reflect much that is wrong with evangelicalism, and confine oneself to the fact that these two evangelicals disagreed about whether one could, as a talk radio host, even allow for the possibility that the pope is not in heaven. Not even Al Mohler, for all his excellent analysis of the pope’s and the Church’s errors, noting that John Paul II was a vigorous proponent of the cult of Mary and that he taught that the work of Christ made up for what was lacking in human merit and that he rejected justification by faith, could summon up the strength to say, “The pope, having held these errors, is not in heaven.”

Of course, in one sense no one can know with absolute certainty about anyone’s eternal destiny. We must of necessity leave those ultimate judgments in the hands of an all-knowing God. Nevertheless, we as individuals do make such measured judgments. (Anybody uncomfortable with saying that Hitler is in hell and that Calvin is in heaven?) And the church is given the power of the keys by which she excludes or includes in the kingdom of heaven applying, the standards given by the king of the church.

In my Presbyterian denomination we have standards of admission into membership in the visible church (“out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”) that are consistent with historic Presbyterianism’s commitment to exclude from the church none that Christ includes. Thus we ask for a credible profession of faith. We do not claim that all who make credible professions will be in heaven (we are fallible even in the use of our lawful powers), but we do treat them as such so long as they are communicants in good standing (their professions remain credible). Moreover, we do not regard as unbelievers those who are members of erring churches of Christ. Again, it is the gospel (whether the church is evangelical) and the credible profession (communicants in good standing) that determine whom we invite to share in the common Table of our Lord.

Now a simple question: could the pope have been received into a Presbyterian church holding to the historic Reformed standards of communicant membership? Could he have been invited to the Lord’s Table (where the Lord Himself welcomes and feeds His people) in a Presbyterian church practicing the Reformed fencing of table? Hence, if we regard as heaven-bound those whom we receive into communicant membership and those whom other evangelical churches receive, then do we not regard the others to be, so far as we know, hell-bound? When we apply the liberal and charitable standards by which Presbyterian churches have judged who are Christians, the pope was not one. He did not “acknowledge himself to be a sinner in the sight of God justly deserving his displeasure and without hope save in his sovereign mercy.” He did not “acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the son of God and Savior of sinners and receive and rest upon him alone as he is offered in the Gospel.” He held no membership in an evangelical church on earth.

He was a good man, a courageous man, a pious man, an admirable man, a man who did much good in his lifetime. But do we not agree that such things are not sufficient to make one acceptable to God? Do we not still believe “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”? Do we not still believe that a man is justified by faith apart from all human righteousness, or devotion, accomplishment?

A little Protestant girl and a little Roman Catholic boy found themselves walking together toward their homes wearing their Sunday best (yes, I know that is now a meaningless description, but bear with me). They came to a low spot in the road where spring rains had partially flooded the road. There was no way that they could get across to the other side without getting wet. “If I get my new Sunday dress wet my Mom’s going to skin me alive,” said the little girl. “My Mom’ll tan my hide too if I get my new Sunday suit wet,” replied the little boy. “I tell you what I think I’ll do,” said the little girl. “I’m gonna pull off all my clothes and hold them over my head and wade across.” “That’s a good idea,” replied the little boy. “I’m going to do the same thing with my suit.”

So they both undressed and waded across to the other side without getting their clothes wet. They were standing there in the sun waiting to drip dry before putting their clothes back on when the little boy finally remarked, “You know, I never did realize before just how much difference there really is between a Protestant and a Catholic.” Yep. I wish the pope were in heaven, but I have reasons for fearing otherwise.

William H. Smith is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America

An End Run

Imagine you are a Reformedish Protestant around the time of George W. Bush’s election. You have entered the world of Reformed Protestantism by way of the biblical theology (which leaned Federal) of Peter Leithart and James Jordan, you agree with a number of Doug Wilson’s critiques of modern America, and you became acquainted with the West and the Great Books again through Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Say you want a Reformed or Presbyterian church with a narrative that inspires, that connects with the sort of intellectual creativity that Leithart displays, that shows little of the wear and tear that afflicts most denominations in the United States whether sideline or mainline, and that connects with the larger history of the West, from Plato to Erasmus.

Where do you turn?

The OPC is too small and too theologically sectarian. The PCA suffers from similar problems among the TRs (Truly Reformed) and is blithely naive about modernity and urbanity on its progressive side. The ARP and the CRC are too ethnic and suffer from a measure of parochialism within their Scottish and Dutch traditions respectively. The same goes for the RPCNA which is even smaller than the OPC. The CREC might work but in 2000 that communion is only two years old, not the strongest case for a church with roots.

To your credit, you were enough of a Protestant not to find Roman Catholicism as a viable alternative.

What then? Why not turn to Elizabethan Anglicanism, like this?

The early English church, despite all the misconstruals of it by Anglo-Catholics, was Protestant and Reformed. The history of the 19th Anglo-Catholic attempt to deny this is a painful one for those who prize integrity of inquiry. The work of Peter Nockles and the more recent, and excellent, work of Jean-Louis Quantin, have shown how wrongheaded that 19th century orgy of wishful thinking really was. But this was proved back in the 19th c itself by Nathaniel Dimock, regarding sacramental theology, and regarding ecclesiology, by the American Bishop Charles McIlwaine, in his Roman, Oxford, and Anglican Divinity Compared.

The English Church of Elizabeth, James, and Charles is, in some ways, a model of importance for own time. Reformed churches, their common mind constricted by familiarity only with Scots and English Presbyterianism, miss the riches of Reformed thought available in Richard Hooker, or Richard Field, or Lancelot Andrewes (just as they miss the riches available in the thought of German and French Reformed). Anglo-Catholic attempts to prove that the established church was somehow not really Protestant are attempts to deprive modern Protestants of useful heritage.

What is important to notice about this way of being Reformed is that it allowed you to occupy the catholic and moderate middle while also regarding the regulative principle as too Puritan and biblicist (and sectarian) and two-kingdom theology as a betrayal of the godly monarch (which allegedly made the English church tick until those rowdy Presbyterians and Puritans conspired to take down Charles I).

What is also striking about this line of argument about the American church scene at the beginning of the 21st century was that it was precisely the way priests and bishops who were part of the Anglican establishment saw Christianity in England:

The great innovation of Elizabeth’s reign was what we might term the internalization of anti-sectarian rhetoric, as anti-puritanism. In Edward’s reign that language had been used to associate the English church with the foreign reformed churches in the common defence of an emergent reformed orthodoxy. Now it was introjected, to precisely opposite effect, into the conduct of intra-Protestant debates between defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo and proponents of various styles and modes of further reformation. The central figure here was John Whitgift who, in an extended exchange with the leading presbyterian ideologue of the day, Thomas Cartwright, deployed the Edwardian version of the two extremes used to define the via media of the English church, popery and Anabaptism, to exclude, as he hoped, the likes of Cartwright and his ilk, from the charmed circle of English Protestant respectability. True to the spirit of his Edwardian forebears, Whitgift sought to assimilate Cartwright and his associates both to popery and to Anabaptism, using what he took to be their ultra-scripturalism and populism to associate them with the latter and what he took to be their clericalist opposition to the Royal Supremacy to associate them with the former.

Ostensibly a form of religious polemic, Whitgift’s anti-puritanism was also inherently political. It dealt with issues of governance and jurisdiction and stressed heavily the extent of direct royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs. In so doing it encoded within itself a set of (intensely monarchical) political values, defined against what he took to be the ‘popularity’ inscribed within presbyterian theory and puritan political practice. By popularity Whitgift mean a commitment to theories of government in which the role of the people was expanded. But he also used the term to refer to the political methods used by the supporters of the discipline to put their case to a variety of more or less popular publics through the pulpit and the press, and through the the circulation of manuscripts and of rumours and a variety of petitioning campaigns, some of them aimed at the parliament rather than at the prince. (Peter Lake, “Post-Reformation Politics, or On Not Looking for the Long-Term Causes of the English Civil War,” 28)

When Machen, Witherspoon, and Knox won’t do, turn to Whitgift and Hooker? In the United States, a country that made its name by rejecting Royal Supremacy?

It is an intellectually energetic way to find an alternative to American politics and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have persisted in the United States. But it is as arbitrary as thinking that the debates surrounding foreign missions and church government of Machen’s time are the terms by which Presbyterians in Australia ought to operate.

Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Married Presbyterian Pastors

Protestants do not receive nearly the credit they should for seeing 500 years ago what George Weigel recently observed (and it took Hillary Clinton — a Methodist).

First, marriage can be a good thing:

The Church’s unique, Christ-given structure invests great authority in bishops. And that, in turn, puts a high premium on the ability of the bishop to know his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes. But to know and learn from his weaknesses and mistakes, the bishop has to recognize them – or be invited to recognize them, if one of a number of vices prevents him from seeing himself making mistakes. Wives and children do this charitable correction for husbands and fathers. But Catholic bishops don’t get that form of correction because they don’t have wives and children. So it has to come from somewhere else.

Second, regular assemblies of clergy (think presbyteries or classes) also have their advantages:

“Fraternal correction” among bishops is an ancient and honorable tradition in the Church. Patristic-era bishops practiced it with some vigor, the most famous case being the controversy between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen, Bishop of Rome. Today, bishops’ respect for each other’s autonomy tends to mitigate against the practice of fraternal correction. Still, if “affective collegiality” means anything, it ought to mean having enough care for a brother-bishop, no matter his position in the episcopal college, to suggest to him that he is off-course, if that is one’s conscientious judgment, tempered by prayer.

Fraternal correction is a delicate instrument, to be used with care. If its use completely atrophies, however, the Church risks becoming an ecclesiastical version of Clintonworld.

Hello! The conciliarists of the 15th century knew this. But when you hold on to “venerable” institutions, it’s hard to change (or admit when you do).

Today's Lesson in Ecclesiology

From the far right:

After Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there was a near-universal agreement among Church leaders that his successor should make it a top priority to bring the Roman Curia under more effective control: that is, to govern the Vatican well. In the daily conferences leading up to the 2013 conclave, one cardinal after another spoke out in favor of administrative reforms. Not surprisingly, after his election Pope Francis soon pledged himself to the cause of Vatican reform. It is not an easy task, and to date we have not seen the fruit of his efforts (except in Vatican financial affairs, where the reforms driven by Cardinal Pell are taking effect), but it will be fair to judge this pontificate on the Pope’s success or failure in streamlining and taming his own bureaucracy.

But the problems of Church governance do not stop at the Vatican walls. Especially because Pope Francis has indicated a desire for decentralized leadership, the Church will need bishops who govern effectively.

How often have you heard complaints about a bishop’s prayer life? Not often; very few people are presumptuous enough to judge the quality of another man’s prayers.

Have you heard complaints about a bishop’s teaching? Yes, occasionally. Frustrated Catholics will sometimes say that a bishop’s public statements on doctrinal issues have been confusing or misleading. Far more frequently there will be laments that the bishop remains silent when a clear teaching statement is necessary.

Still, by far the greatest source about a bishop’s performance will involve his governance. The appointment of pastors, the decisions to close parishes or schools, and the diocesan budget priorities will always be easy targets for critics. But even beyond that, the most common complaints involve not the bishop’s acts of governance, but his inaction: his failure to respond to complaints about liturgical abuse or parish mismanagement; his unwillingness to rebuke prominent Catholics who flout the teachings of the Church; his acceptance of religious-education programs that mislead young people and leave them ignorant; his tolerance for priests who have lapsed into complacency or worse.

Granted, lay Catholics should spend less time complaining about their bishops, and more time praying for them. Nevertheless it is instructive to see the nature of their complaints. We certainly need bishops who pray fervently and preach effectively. But we also need bishops who govern well. Above all, we need bishops who want to govern.

From the Protestant left:

You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by discipling other church members.

Remember Ephesians 4:15–16. The church builds itself up in love as each part does its work. You have work to do to build up the church. And part of that includes the ministry of words. A few verses later, Paul says, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (v. 25). Speak truth to them, and help them to grow. Our words should be “good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, make yourself available to be spoken to. Are you willing to listen?

Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. It is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. Speaking of . . .

If through union with the second Adam God has reinstated you as a priest-king, your whole life should reflect the gospel in word and deed. You are an ambassador. Paul’s charge and example is worth repeating here:

He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)

Every Christian has been reconciled, and thus every Christian has received this message of reconciliation. Therefore, we plead and we pray for sinners to be reconciled to God.

This, too, is a part of your job. The command to “Go and make disciples” belongs to you (Matt. 28:19).

From the moderate Calvinist middle:

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

As always, the one, the many, or the few.

In the Same Boat?

Do Jason and the Callers concede what George Weigel admits, namely, that despite all the authority that they boast for their communion it turns out they have no episcopal oversight unless they are ordained. In comments about the media’s coverage of the sex abuse scandal, Weigel says:

Another fact that was missed is that reducing a man, an abuser, to the lay state persistently and, if you will permit me, mindlessly dubbed “defrocking,” a word which has absolutely no meaning in any known Catholic vocabulary, is often worse for both the Church and society. It’s worse for the Church because the Church has no way to control the man who has been laicized or reduced to the lay state, and it’s worse for society because that man cut loose from any possibility of institutional control by the institution in which he had spent some considerable part of his life might, therefore, pose a future risk because of what we know to be a high rate of recidivism in some of these cases.

How is this any different from a Protestant denomination or congregation except that Protestant apologists don’t go around boasting about the authority of their pastors and bishops?

In the same setting, Weigel raised yet another question about the gap between Jason and the Callers theory and Roman Catholic practice — in this case, whether the charism of apostolic succession can make up for ineptitude:

The second point that I would make is that if you are interested in doing real reporting among serious Catholics throughout the world, I think you will find something quite striking, and that is while there remains enormous, strong, emotional, and affective and personal support for priests, there are real questions about the competence of bishops throughout the Church.

No matter where I go in the world Church, North America, Europe, Latin America, the single biggest complaint I hear from engaged and intelligent Catholics is about the competence of the local bishop. Some of that is unfair, but a lot of it isn’t, and it speaks to a serious problem that the abuse crisis has brought to the fore.

Let me put that problem in historical terms. In the early 19th Century when the first Catholic bishops were being appointed in the then nascent United States of America, Pope Pius VII had a free right of appointment in perhaps 50 of the then some 600 dioceses in the world. The rest were controlled by governments, by cathedral chapters or other ecclesiastical organizations, but the Church did not have — the Church as embodied by its leadership in Rome — simply did not have control over the most crucial appointments in its ordained leadership.

One of the great untold stories of the success of Vatican diplomacy over the past 200 years has been to change that situation such that now with what is it, more than 5,000 bishops in the world —

. . . Five thousand and twelve bishops in the world, and with the sole exceptions of Vietnam and China, the Church has essentially a free right of appointment. So the Church has gathered back to itself after what some of us would consider this period of Babylonian captivity to state power in the appointment of bishops. It has regained the capacity to order its own house according to its own criteria.

And, in fact, this has been imbedded in the new code of cannon law, which says that no rights of appointment are to be given in the future to state authorities.

However, if you were going to claim the right to appoint, then you must also in my view own the right to dismiss, and this is perhaps the single biggest management problem in the Catholic Church today, is that we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.

So here is another huge problem that has got to be addressed presumably in the next pontificate. How does the Church get the quality of leadership that the people of the Church deserve, and how does the Church deal with the problem of, frankly, failed appointments? When we get it wrong, how do we deal with this?

This has got to be addressed. I addressed it actually a bit in The Courage to be Catholic, and it’s perhaps a shining example of how little influence I have over things that none of this has had the slightest dent that I can tell on the way things are done.

But it’s a big, big problem, and it’s perhaps in the abuse crisis, if one is thinking about this over the long term, it’s the biggest problem that has come to the surface that will have real effect on the life of the Church and the life of the people of the Church for the next 50 to 100 years.

Do Jason and the Callers listen to other voices in their own communion — “we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.”

They keep telling us they have a mechanism in place and regular Roman Catholics like Weigel say the mechanism doesn’t exist.

The fine print of Jason and the Callers’ call is that they raise the stakes of conversion. If you convert to mother church, they argue, you get so much more than a possibly subjectivized relationship with Jesus. But what happens if you don’t get all that? What happens if the church isn’t all that your theory says it is? What happens if the church isn’t the mechanism you say it is? Doesn’t that make conversion to Jesus in a setting where the church tells you that having Jesus is all you need — not worrying about whether the church’s claims for itself are audaciously true — a call that is much more compelling?

Episcopacy Envy

Bishops are easier to control and follow, which is the consolation to us Presbyterians who sometimes give into the temptation to wish for a church with more visibility and influence. But if you read the articles in First Things about the Ukranian and Russian churches, you understand that presbyters are much harder to master (just ask James VI) than bishops and so have their own influence even if it comes without visibility:

. . . from a Russian Orthodox point of view, all the other large churches in Ukraine have violated church unity. At best, their existence is tragic; at worst, schismatic. The creation of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the sixteenth century took Orthodox believers away from Moscow and subjected them to Rome. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Church came into being only because the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church by dividing it and therefore destroying it from within. The Kyivan Patriarchate exploited Ukrainian nationalism, and therefore anti-Russian sentiment, in order to break from Moscow.

The experience of persecution under communism has taught the Moscow Patriarchate to value visible unity at almost any price. After the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, Metropolitan Sergi (Stragorodski) illegitimately assumed patriarchal powers. The man who should have succeeded Tikhon, Metropolitan Kirill (Smirnov), was outraged by Sergi’s willingness to subject the Church to a godless state in a futile effort to save the Church as a public institution. In protest, Kirill denied the validity of the Eucharist celebrated by Sergi and his supporters. Another Tikhon loyalist, Metropolitan Agafangel (Preobrazhenski), ordered his priests to disobey mandates of Sergi that violated Christian conscience. Sergi responded by denouncing both men, thereby encouraging the secret police to arrest them, send them into exile, and subject them to physical and psychological torture.

Nevertheless, neither Kirill nor Agafangel broke the unity of the Church or organized a movement to remove Sergi from office. Moreover, Kirill later repented of breaking Eucharistic fellowship. In short, Kirill and Agafangel expressed their opposition within the bounds of what they understood to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized not Sergi, but rather Kirill and Agafangel. The message is clear: The Church must remain one, and divisions only weaken it and the people and nation whom it serves.
To the other Ukrainian churches, the question of church unity looks different. The Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church argue that Orthodox believers have always been allowed to organize themselves along national lines. An autocephalous Ukrainian Church does not violate church unity; on the contrary, the autocephalous Orthodox churches cultivate an intensive fellowship among themselves.

From this perspective, the Moscow Patriarchate is not interested in saving Ukrainians from a nationalistic agenda, but rather is seeking to subject them to Russian imperialistic pretensions. An independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy can help the Ukrainian people reclaim their unique language and national traditions over and against a Russia that has often tried to eliminate Ukrainian identity or reduce it to a variety of Russian identity (as when Russians commonly assert that “the Ukrainian language is just a Russian village dialect”). For this kind of nationalistic Orthodoxy, to be Ukrainian means not to be Russian.

When you have only one person to control, as opposed to a committee (read assembly), making deals and peddling influence for national purposes becomes much easier. The one exception to this is a bishop with a universal, as opposed to a geographically defined, jurisdiction. And this is what makes the papacy different from other bishops — sort of. The pope is not defined by any nation — consider the opposition that the Vatican exhibited during events leading up to Italian unification. That doesn’t mean the pope was entirely independent of political authority or place. The Bishop of Rome needed various European monarchs to make that long trek over the Alps to put things right in Rome — such as ridding the city of the Lombards and restore the pope to his position. The papacy has also been bound up with the West (and one of the draws for converts to Rome is Roman Catholicism’s identification with the civilization of Western Europe). It’s not as if when we think of Roman Catholicism Vancouver or Seoul immediately come to mind.

Michael Sean Winters recently described in the context of Bishop Cupich’s recent installation in Chicago how, aside from politics, technology contributed to the centralization of papacy’s authority (and what Pope Francis may be doing to change that):

In contemplating the +Cupich appointment and what it might mean, I am reminded of an earlier predecessor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch. In the 1950s, at a dinner with Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., Murray was explaining the stance taken by the late Cardinal James Gibbons on the issue of church-state relations. In the 1950s, you will recall, Murray’s theories on the subject were under a cloud at the Holy Office. Cardinal Stritch listened to Murray and then opined, “Well, of course, none of us can go as far as Cardinal Gibbons went.” Murray, in a letter to his friends Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, said he wanted to blurt out, “Why not?” +Gibbons had been the preeminent American churchman for half a century, starting with his appointment to Baltimore in 1877, until his death in 1921. It was during that time that the Romanization of the American hierarchy began in earnest, with the appointment of William Henry O’Connell to Portland, Maine in 1901 and to Boston as coadjutor archbishop in 1906. By the time +Stritch and Murray were dining together, long gone were the days when priests in a vacant diocese and bishops within the province submitted their ternas to Rome for episcopal appointments.

The centralization of ecclesiastical authority in Rome was not driven exclusively by ideological ultramonstanism. It was also a function of emerging technologies. With the telegraph, then the telephone, then the fax and now the internet, the sayings and doings of popes reached people worldwide. No longer did Rome issue a papal bull in Latin, which was sent to the bishops of the world who would then translate the text into the vernacular and issue their own pastoral letter to their clergy, who would, in turn, apply the teaching in the pulpit and the confessional. There were layers of pastoral application that vanished in the course of the twentieth century. By 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the New York Times had the headline “Pope Bans Pill” before any bishop anywhere had a chance to read the encyclical and make some sense of it. I am not sure we, as a Church, have adapted to that kind of difference in how the teachings of the Church are communicated or received.

This centralization has been a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Catholic Church stands alone among the world’s religions in having a central focus of our identity and mission. On the other hand, Roman minutanti may not always know the local situation of the various churches as well as the pastors on the ground. And, many, though not all, bishops seem emasculated, which is different from being obedient, more like branch managers of Vatican Inc than bishops in their own right. +Cupich is many things, but emasculated is not one of them.

Now, for the first time in a long time, we have a pope who seems committed to some degree of decentralization of authority away from Rome. So, in thinking about the impact of +Cupich’s tenure, perhaps we should not be looking to the +Bernardin years but to the +Gibbons years. Will he become a model for a new kind of bishop, one who is not always looking over his shoulder to make sure the CDF isn’t listening? Will leadership in the USCCB have a different character, and different outcomes, as the body increasingly becomes the focus for any devolved authority from Roman curial congregations? If, as Pope Francis clearly wants, bishops are now being encouraged to speak frankly, even to disagree in public, will +Cupich be the kind of national leader who can keep the bishops unified even while they search for consensus? The smart money says he will.

And what goes for political authorities also applies to journalists. Imagine a religion reporter needing to find out what the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America thinks about immigration reform. First, the Assembly doesn’t exist beyond its stated times of meeting and, second, with the exception of David Robertson, moderator of the Free Church of Scotland who gives Pope Francis a run for his money in comments to the press about various and sundry temporal affairs, a moderator of an assembly also ceases to hold office once the commissioners vote to adjourn. If you want to know the mind of the Presbyterian Church on matters other than its doctrinal statements, rules for worship, and form of government (all available on-line and hardly pertinent for thinking about, say, fracking), imagine trying to round up the neighborhood cats for a game of kickball.

Of course, the temptation for us real biblical overseers looking on at the world of episcopacy is to become jealous over the attention that rulers and reporters give to bishops. At the same time, the consolation is having a job that let’s you do what you really think to be important without always having to position yourself before the public or negotiate with rulers. After all, it is one thing to be a favorite professor of the college president. But with that favoritism comes a lot of potential scrutiny and back room conversations that no amount of wining and dining can make pleasant.

The Costs and Benefits of Union

The No’s have it 55% to 45% and the United Kingdom remains intact for now. That rush you hear is the collective sigh of relief from Northern Ireland.

David Robertson proved prophetic but he also comes from one of the few places that voted Yes. It raises the question of whether Pastor Robertson persuaded lots of Dundee’s residents to vote Yes or whether he was a Free Church version of a deeper Dundee sentiment. W-wers will always tell us that religion trumps region. I think only our hairdressers know for sure.

And David from Scotland, this one by the name of Murray who teaches in the Dutch New Jerusalem, predicted the outcome but worried about the health of the churches in his native land:

I keep coming back to the spiritual implications and asking, “What would be best for the Kingdom of God?”

I agree with the Christians who argue that the evidence from the devolved Scottish parliament since its inception in 1999 is that Scottish politicians have tried to outdo and outpace their London counterparts in stripping Scotland of its Christian heritage and replacing it with a rabidly secular agenda. Yes, I’m ashamed to say, Scotland has led the way in the UK in legislating for gay rights, gay adoption, gay marriage, etc. Having said that, London has only been a step or two behind. So, whether Scotland stays in the union or votes for independence, I don’t see either arrangement making that much difference to Christians or the Church of Christ.

Presbyterians in North American can say that the United Kingdom has been good by a variety of measures for Presbyterian churches over here. Without a United Kingdom, the Scots would not have been part of the British empire which in turn extended both Presbyterianism and Anglicanism around the world. True, North America had a Reformed church — the Dutch one — before the English achieved hegemony on the Eastern Seaboard. But could the Dutch have withstood the French (whom the British defeated in the 1763 after dispatching the Dutch nine decades earlier)? The Dutch could not withstand Napoleon. The effect of the French Revolution on a Francophone North America is anyone’s guess. But even if it wasn’t as bad for the Reformed churches in Geneva or Amsterdam as some have argued, it wasn’t entirely positive. In contrast, the British dominance of North America gave Scottish and Irish Presbyterians a foothold which after American independence became a significant presence in U.S. and Canadian religious life. On this side of the United Kingdom, we can say it was a positive development in several respects.

One thought that occurred to me last night while listening to an NPR show about the vote was the shared cultural memory that the Scots and English have thanks to two world wars. One of the most moving parts of visiting Scotland last summer was to see the lists of Scottish soldiers who died in the wars. They seemed to be everywhere — in the old buildings at the University of Edinburgh, at St. Giles’ Cathedral, and at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Would independence have required wiping out that memory of collective effort? The question is all the more poignant when you consider that independence from a United Kingdom allowed Ireland to remain neutral in World War II. That position did not prevent Irish from the Republic from serving in the war — as many as 100,000 fought with the British (over 3,500 died). But figuring out how to remember their deaths becomes a whole lot more complicated when the point of your republic is autonomy from London.

I wonder how much the memory of Scottish casualties in the United Kingdom’s wars made Yes impossible.

There is Antinomianism and then there is Antinomianism

Protestants wouldn’t seem to have to worry too much about lacking moral fiber.

Here is how H. L. Mencken perceived moralism in the United States circa 1920:

The man of morals has a certain character, and the man of honour has a quite different character. No one not an idiot fails to differentiate between the two, or to order his intercourse with them upon an assumption of their disparity. What we know in the United States as a Presbyterian is pre-eminently the moral type. Perhaps more than any other man among us he regulates his life, and the lives of all who fall under his influence, upon a purely moral plan. In the main, he gets the principles underlying that plan from the Old Testament; if he is to be described succinctly, it is as one who carries over into modern life, with its superior complexity of sin, the simple and rigid ethical concepts of the ancient Jews. And in particular, he subscribes to their theory that it is virtuous to make things hot for the sinner, by which word he designates any person whose conduct violates the ordinances of God as he himself is aware of them and interprets them. Sin is to the Presbyterian the salient phenomenon of this wobbling and nefarious world, and the pursuit and chastisement of sinners the one avocation that is permanently worth while. . . . Every single human act, he holds, must be either right or wrong – and the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. He knows exactly what these wrong ones are; he recognizes them instantly and infallibly, by a sort of inspired intuitions; and he believes that they should all be punished automatically and with the utmost severity. No one ever heard of a Presbyterian overlooking a fault, or pleading for mercy for the erring. (The American Credo, 51, 52, 53)

Forty years later when a Protestant (Robert McAfee Brown) looked at Roman Catholicism and a Roman Catholic (Gustave Weigel) looked at Protestantism, Weigel’s impression was similar to Mencken’s:

The Reformer’s strong rhetoric against the value of works could be interpreted as a form of antinomianism. “Sin valiantly and believe more valiantly.” Yet all the Reformers were against sin in all its forms and shapes. Calvin’s Geneva was no place for sin or worldliness. Virtue was the strongly enforced law of the city. In the history of Protestantism we do not find antinomianism as a practice except perhaps in some exotic little groups not recognized as genuine by the mass of Protestants. In all Protestant communities it does make a difference whether you behave yourself or don’t. Works are important, very important indeed. Catholic cultures are rarely as strict as communities where a strong calvinism prevails. Strangely enough, Catholicism always is more concerned with the faith of its members than with their works. For the Catholic the loss of faith is the greatest loss. With faith alive, pardon is possible. Where faith is absent, there is no pardon. (An American Dialogue, 177)

Postscript: the observations of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Brown-Weigel exchange are striking for showing how different the Christian landscape is today in the U.S. On the theme of moralism, Weigel also had this to say:

When the Catholic hears a Protestant sermon he notes a number of things. In most cases the sermon is on a moral theme, and could be heard without much, if any, change in a Catholic church. (135)

Or this:

There is of course a Protestant prudery just as there is a Catholic prudery, but I am not referring to either. It seems to the Catholic that the Protestant is not too worried about birth-control, obscenity in the theatre or in print, and exhibitionism in public. Here the Protestant stands for liberty while the Catholic considers it license. These different attitudes produce friction in the national community. The Protestant thinks the Catholic immoral because he drinks and plays Bingo — and it gives the Protestant satisfaction. The Catholic thinks the Protestant immoral because he will not fight birth-control and it makes the Catholic feel morally superior.

These attitudes to drinking, gambling, and sex are very conspicuous but somehow they are not too significant. The real difference between the two communities is their distinctive conceptions of virtue. The Protestant esteems the natural virtues while the Catholic makes more of the supernatural virtues. The Protestant thinks highly of truthfulness, sobriety, simplicity, reliability, and industriousness. The Catholic most esteems humility, mortification, penance, chastity, poverty, and abnegation. Both admire charity, but Catholic charity is warmer and more personal, while Protestant charity is more efficient and better organized. . . . The result of the different tempers of moral conception will be Protestant reserve, stiffness and gravity in contrast to the Catholic’s tendency toward spontaneity, Baroque display and even Rabelaisian earthiness. (143-144)

Am (all about me) I the Reason for Presbyterianism's Failure?

Once upon a time, Episcopalians really did believe in truth and error, and condemned Presbyterianism as a departure from true Christianity (winning over the crown didn’t hurt efforts to prove Anglicanism true). One of the errors of Presbyterianism was ordaining the laity to be rulers in the church (read elders). Here is how one pamphleteer at the end of the seventeenth century put it (Parallel between episcopacy & presbytery; or The Church of England vindicated from all the false and uncharitable reports and suggestions of either papist or Presbyterian [1680]:

. . .which of these two governments have the more effectual means to procure the end of Church-government, the preservation of truth and peace, and the suppression of heresy and schism. I answer Episcopal; for ‘tis strange, that laymen, from whose education has no knowledge beyond their trades and such like affairs can be expected, should be as fit instruments for such kind of employments, as grave and learned scholars, whose only business is to tread the path of all arts, both humane and Divine.

Come to think of it, in an elite world of princes and bishops having all the power, putting the affairs of heaven and hell in the hands of ordinary laymen was risky. And that diceyness may explain why Presbyterians throughout the modern era have looked for professionals — physicians, attorneys, and academics — to train and ordain as elders. At least these well educated persons would know more than the ordinary bishop.